It's truly insane the degree to which the 'Mission: Impossible' franchise has transformed from a relatively watchable series of action films to maybe the best film franchise we have. After J.J. Abrams essentially rebooted the series in 2006 with 'Mission: Impossible 3', the series has gone from strength to strength, culminating in the jaw-dropping spectacle of the sixth entry, 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' in 2018. Much of this is thanks to the involvement of director and Oscar-winning writer Christopher McQuarrie. After consulting on Brad Bird's sublime 2011 entry 'Ghost Protocol', McQuarrie took over stewardship of the franchise with his bombastic 'Rogue Nation' in 2015. These films are part of the ongoing creative partnership he has established with franchise star and producer Tom Cruise, and together they have taken the scale, stakes and skill of these films to greater heights than arguably any other contemporary action films. Because of this, anticipation for the next instalment, 'Dead Reckoning', has been greater than ever before, and with the release of the first half of this two-part epic, it's clear this iconic franchise has no intentions of slowing down.
A mysterious new artificial intelligence known as The Entity has caught the attention of the world's superpowers. Anyone who can take control of The Entity will have the power to control the greatest digital asset the world has ever seen, and everyone is racing to find the one thing that can guarantee them control - the two interlocking parts of a key. Almost no one knows what it unlocks, and the whereabouts of each piece are constantly in motion. The U.S. government believes that Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, 'Doctor Sleep') is in possession of one half, and send Ethan Hunt (Cruise, 'Top Gun: Maverick') to find her and take possession of it. What Ethan quickly realises though is that this operation is part of a wider conspiracy, one that will put both Ilsa and his team in serious danger. Once again, Ethan is forced to go rogue - but this time, every major superpower and numerous figures from the criminal underworld are in pursuit of him, Ilsa, his team and a mysterious thief named Grace (Hayley Attwell, 'Captain America: The First Avenger') who has unknowingly found herself the linchpin in the race to get the key and control The Entity.
This synopsis doesn't even begin to cover the endless twists, turns and revelations packed into 'Dead Reckoning Part One', an endlessly moving piece of action clockwork that's as exhilarating a mental experience as it is a sensorial one. Rather than replicating the elegance of 'Rogue Nation' or the majesty of 'Fallout', McQuarrie and co-writer Erik Jendresen construct this first part like a Rubik's Cube, an almost endless puzzle of lies, deceit, deception and mystery. At first, there's a sense the complications of the plot might cause the film to collapse in on itself, but McQuarrie is such a careful, erudite storyteller that he makes sure nothing is left dangling and everything is paid off, even though this is only the first half of a larger story. He grounds the film in clear emotional stakes, both for the central mystery and for Ethan. The key to this franchise, certainly in the last few instalments, has been the very first scene of Brian De Palma's 1996 original film, where Ethan loses (almost) all of his team in one fell swoop. Since then, his anxiety about losing any member of his team has pushed him to greater degrees of danger and further into an almost psychotic need to save the day, something that both Cruise and McQuarrie have embraced with careful self-awareness. With this film, the extremes to which Ethan is prepared to go are amplified further and the stakes if he loses are all the greater. In this instance, practically everyone is out to get him and his core work family, with the ultimate antagonist being an all-knowing algorithm who will always be one step ahead of him. The spinning insanity of the plot works to amplify how preposterous and high-stakes 'Dead Reckoning Part One' is. Of course, it's all a bit silly, but that's ultimately the appeal of these films - preposterous silly plots executed with an astonishing level of craft - and McQuarrie is careful to still root that silliness in something the audience can relate to. As the glorious cacophony of the film build and builds and builds, you find yourself leaning further and further out of your seat, fully invested in the action and the stakes, ready to leap to your feet in the long-teased moments of ecstasy.
Compared to 'Fallout', 'Dead Reckoning Part One' is more focused on narrative and character rather than end-to-end action. This isn't to say that one is better than the other, but that they're both taking very different approaches to what an 'M:I' movie can be. 'Fallout' was a symphonic, sweeping action epic, one that could almost function as a silent film. Here, we are given many more scenes of expositional dialogue between characters, but they aren't without an immediacy or a dynamism. Once again, De Palma's film becomes the key, McQuarrie and cinematographer Fraser Taggart emulating the dizzying dutch angles and intense close-ups of that film to give conversation scenes a palpable sense of danger. It works beautifully, maintaining a state of breath-holding tension throughout the film's 2 hour and 40 minute run time. Where 'Fallout' uses moments of stillness as breath between its melodic movements, 'Dead Reckoning Part One' never wants to let you off the hook for a second. Even the smallest moments are punctuated by carefully delivered tension, whether that be the distant sound of a helicopter or the persistent interruption of a train whistle. McQuarrie and Jendresen also know how to deliver the right information at the right time and to whom, even occasionally allowing the audience to be a few steps ahead of the characters.
When the action does hit, it does so with overwhelming bombast and propulsion. Of course these set pieces are spectacularly staged, and of course, each stunt that Cruise attempts is more baffling and jaw-dropping than the last, but what 'Dead Reckoning Part One' further cements is what makes this franchise such an exception - no action sequence is done for its own sake. This is particularly remarkable when you consider how insane some of the set pieces are, but it all come back to McQuarrie's unconventional approach to how these films are constructed. Rather than developing a narrative and deciding on set pieces from there - or even worse, the Marvel approach of the two being developed separately and then arbitrarily shoe-horned together - McQuarrie and Cruise start with the stunts and set pieces they want to stage and build a story around them. In the wrong hands, this could be catastrophic, but McQuarrie is never not thinking about the story and how all these pieces can come together. Underpinning every action sequence is an understanding of its importance to plot and character, so that not a moment is wasted. Even in an insane car chase through Paris in the most unexpected of transports, and we're still learning about the characters. What is even more remarkable is that often the narrative arc of the film isn't even decided until the final edit, with each sequence being moved around like a puzzle piece until they all fit in the correct place. As a result, each component of the film has been carefully thought through and what we see has an immediacy and a spontaneity to it that very few action films are able to manufacture. With 'Dead Reckoning Part One', this accounts for the sense of the film throttling forward, each moment rolling head-first into the next.
What also makes these films work so well is how action and spectacle never come at the cost of craft. At no moment does 'Dead Reckoning Part One' look anything other than sumptuous, whether it be the extraordinary use of light, colour and shadow in shaping image in Taggart's cinematography, the striking silhouettes and textures of Jill Taylor's costumes or the precision and daring in Eddie Hamilton's editing. Like its predecessors, 'Dead Reckoning Part One' is a film built to last, to offer a purely cinematic experience for its audience that can only be fully appreciated on the largest screen with the loudest sound, and more importantly, in the company of hundreds of other people as a collective, breathless experience. Every Hollywood blockbuster makes the claim that they should be seen in a cinema, but with the exception of 'Dune: Part Two', 'Oppenheimer' or 'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse', I cannot imagine any film this year more necessary to see on the big screen as this one. The visual and aural scale of it is immense; even its moments of silence are pure, deafening spectacle. This is also a great moment to mention how far Lorne Balfe knocks it out of the ballpark with his score for 'Dead Reckoning Part One'. His score for 'Fallout' was tremendous, but here he matches the shifting tone of this film with a score that is playful, mysterious, cheeky, muscular and bombastic, and just as with 'Fallout', McQuarrie, Hamilton and the sound team know when to dial things back and let Balfe take centre stage.
McQuarrie and Cruise start with the stunts and set pieces they want to stage and build a story around them. In the wrong hands, this could be catastrophic, but McQuarrie is never not thinking about the story and how all these pieces can come together.
The cast of these films have always been top-notch, and 'Dead Reckoning Part One' continues this trend with many returning favourites along with some memorable new faces. Tom Cruise still has more charisma than almost any movie star working today, and the skill with which he balances carefully pitched humour, intense magnetism and Ethan's constant internal struggle is thrilling to watch. There's also lots of playful banter between Benji (Simon Pegg,'Star Trek' franchise and Luther (Ving Rhames, 'Pulp Fiction'), but after dominating the last two films, Rebecca Ferguson's iconic Ilsa Faust initially takes a bit of a back seat here. This may be one of the few stumbles in 'Dead Reckoning Part One', especially after how vital she had been to 'Rogue Nation' and 'Fallout'. Also returning are Vanessa Kirby as the deliciously wicked White Widow and Henry Czerny as Kitteridge, not seen in the franchise since the legendary fish tank scene in the first film.
Of the new cart, Hayley Attwell steals the show as Grace, thrown right into the centre of the Ethan Hunt hurricane. Attwell's career has been an endlessly frustrating one, this superb actor never fully given the opportunity to shine that she deserves. With 'Dead Reckoning Part One', she finally gets it, making as memorable an arrival in the series as Ferguson had done in 'Rogue Nation'. As Gabriel, the human representative of The Entity, Esai Morales ('La Bamba') brings enormous malice and menace to the film, barely a scrap of humanity behind his still, unsettling eyes. Our third new character Paris (Pom Klementieff,'Guardians of the Galaxy' franchise barely says a word, but Klementieff's performance is so gleefully vicious in a way we rarely see from our 'M:I' villains, and she certainly leaves a strong impression on the film.
Perhaps the biggest question about this film, as one half of a two-part story, is whether or not it feels satisfying in its own right. This is especially pertinent after the slam-dunk delivered barely a month ago with 'Across the Spider-Verse'. What works so much in this film's favour is how successful it is able to be both a self-contained film and a tantalising teaser for what is to come. McQuarrie and his team ensure there is a satisfying emotional arc brought to completion by the end of the film, but the fact this film is so exposition-heavy suggests that it is doing a lot of heavy lifting for the benefit of the next film. I wouldn't be surprised if 'Part Two' delivers wall-to-wall action in the race towards whatever spectacular finale McQuarrie and Cruise have in store, even if they are still working out what that finale might be.
You could feel the palpable anticipation in the room as the Paramount logo began to sweep across the screen at the start of 'Dead Reckoning Part One'. We don't come to the 'Mission: Impossible' franchise with the same level of expectation we would with other action franchises. With this series, our expectations are higher. We want them to be big, we want them to be bold and we want them to throw us into the back of our seats from the sheer unrelenting propulsion of them. These are enormous expectations to meet, and 'Dead Reckoning Part One' easily meets them. I spent every second of this film on the edge of my seat, flinching and jumping at every turn, giggling with glee at every moment of bubblegum comedy, gasping at every leap into the unknown, and on the verge of total sensory collapse during the astonishing final sequence. I cannot imagine how any action film this year, or even until 'Part Two' arrives, could possibly match it.